First of all, thanks to Mr. Adam Jones (adamjones.freeservers.com) for the amazing picture of the Thiruvannamalai temple. I can’t even think of a vantage point to take that kind of picture.
I didn’t take a single picture in this trip. I’m sorry if you came here expecting pictures. I will take some next time. To make up for this, I’ll make this post info (at the end of this post) to help people trying to do Girivalam.
It was a properly planned trip but I under-estimated people’s fear of the lunar eclipse. It’s special to visit Thiruvannamalai Arunachaleswarar temple on a full moon night. People gather in tens of thousands to perform Girivalam (walking around the Arunachala hill) on full moon nights. It’s an absolute celebration on full moon nights. The 14 km road around the hill is closed for all traffic on full moon nights. People walk bare-footed around the hill offering prayers at the ashta-lingas (8 forms of Shivalingas) located around the hill. It is for this ritual that I went this time. But this full moon was going to be eclipsed. Not even a normal eclipse, it was going to be the longest eclipse of the century.
I had decided to do the Girivalam – eclipse or no eclipse and I decided to drive my own car this time. Because Thiruvannamalai is only three and a half hours from Chennai and I can easily manage the drive. Also, if I had my own transport, I was pondering to visit the Bheeman falls and Javvadhu hills near Thiruvannamalai. But thanks to the heavy weekend traffic going out of Chennai, it took five hours to reach Thiruvannamalai. Almost two hours was consumed even before I could get out of Chennai. There are multiple routes and the easiest one from Chennai is to drive to Tindivanam and take the Chenji road from there.
I had driven about an hour and half on the Chenji road and from the street signs knew I was already in Thiruvannamalai when the dark silhouette of the large mountain loomed into view against the bright pournami sky in it’s background. I can never forget the shivers that ran down my body when I realized it was the Arunachala hill. I think it was the first time in my life I blurted out ‘Om namah Shivaaya’ without thinking. The mountain doesn’t come into view gradually (probably since it was night). It’s as if it suddenly appears there when you’re close enough. It’s unnerving.
I had booked a room which could be reached only by driving for a bit on the Girivalam road. But those roads are all locked out during the Girivalam. I had to cancel and search for another place to stay. I booked a room at Hotel Himalayaa which was quite close to the Girivalam road. At 3300 rupees, it was quite expensive but I had little other choice and the room was really really good.
My mom had raised doubts on going during an eclipse and one of my friends too warned me not to go. But I was determined to go and the newspapers said that Girivalam was happening at Thiruvannamalai irrespective of the lunar eclipse. After going to the room (at around 10:30 PM), I stepped out to look around. Lots of people were already doing the Girivalam. There was only one small road side shop selling food. Everything else was closed. So I had a light dinner there and asked the shopkeeper about the eclipse. He said people started walking very early because of the eclipse and by the time eclipse begins not a soul would be outside. I felt a bit disappointed because I thought he’ll say ‘people won’t bother about eclipse’. But he was probably right because seeing crowd at that point of the road meant many of them had in-fact started early. They were almost completing it.
My mom called twice after that and told me not to go. I have been out in several eclipse days – even solar eclipses. It felt hypocritical because nothing bad would happen around such a divine temple. I felt sad but something told me to listen to her. I looked longingly at the beautiful full moon on the sky, dropped my idea of going at night and decided to start after the eclipse was over. It was going to end just before 4 AM in the morning. I went back to the room turned on the TV and got into the super comfortable bed they had. Tired from the driving, I didn’t even know when I dozed off. I woke up with a shock and saw the TV was turned on. I switched it off and dozed off again instantly.
The next time I woke up it was 5:30 AM. I was terribly late. It was over 6 when I got ready and left the hotel and almost 7:00 AM when I finished praying at the Arunachaleshwar temple and started my Girivalam. The busy town had already started its day and there was traffic and commotion on the roads. There were a few people who started the Girivalam along with me though. There are people going Girivalam all the time I suppose.
I kept asking people for directions till I reached the Girivalam road. From the temple until you reach the Girivalam road near the mountain, there’s road traffic, the roads are dirty (spit and s*it). Once I reached the Girivalam road, it was so pleasant and breezy. I kinda felt happy that I started in the morning. I wouldn’t have been able to see the beautiful mountain and it’s greenery if it was night. There are lots of saffron dressed people along the path. Some of them will ask you for alms. There are dogs and monkeys. After distance, they have paved a nice footpath along the road. By the time you reach there, your feet will thank them for it. And then I walked and walked and walked. I seemed to be the slowest person doing Girivalam. People who started along with me slowly went out of sight and I was way behind them. And a couple other people from behind me overtook me and went. Not only was I walking slow, I visited all the temples on the way that caught my fancy. If you put money on the priest’s plate, they give a packet of vibhuthi. I brought back home a neat collection of vibhuthi packets. There was no sign of any clouds and the sun was getting hotter now. I noticed the time was around 9:30 AM in one of the temples on the way.
When I arrived at the Vayulingam temple, they had closed the nada to perform neivedhyam. For some reason I was determined to wait till they opened the nada to pray and go. I don’t know if my mind was playing tricks to make me take a break. But I sat down there and waited. These ashtalinga temples are all very small and don’t have enough closed space for all it’s shrines. The main shiva could be closed but there were other Gods outside without their own closed shrines. The priest simply told me not to watch and look the other way. I tried my best not to look. I think it was over half an hour when I could finally offer prayers and leave from there.
The boards that marked every kilometer seemed to be getting farther and farther apart. It was a bit over 11:00 AM when I still had to walk 2 km to complete the Girivalam. The sun was burning hot now. My feet were tenderized from walking over 12 km already. Every time you have to step down the footpath on the road, even very small grains of sand are painful enough to make you gasp. If you’re a first time walker, you’ll probably be walking weird by this time. But it was not only that. I was walking in the day. The scorching sun had heated up the roads hot enough to toast bread on it. The roads are very good quality – so the tar is rich and gets heated up easily. At one point it was like I was walking on fire. The tenderness from walking long, all the tiny pricks from sand and stones on the way and the heat of the road all join together and I started automatically chanting ‘Om namah Shivaaya’ when I came to the final right turn joining the town main road from the Girivalam road. That was the most difficult part. I was standing on a bit of sand on the side of the road and had to cross and get to the other side about 200 feet from this place. No shade. No light-colored part of the road. Just 200 feet of hot black tar. The shadows showed that it’s peak noon. Taking a deep breath, chanting faster, I stepped out of the sand onto the road and started walking fast. Within ten steps the heat started searing on my foot. There was nowhere cooler (or less hot) to step. I knew each step is going to burn my feet the same as the previous one. I had to stop myself from picturing burnt and charred feet.
When I finally reached the other side, I felt disrespectful that I jogged a few steps instead of taking the pain and walking. I noticed a trio of men who had made the same decision as me and walking in the heat just like me. We kinda became shadow hunters from there. Looking for light-colored patches of road, trying to rest our feet in any bit of shadow we could find, we were making our way through the final steps. I knew the temple was so close now but the burning on the feet was making me dead slow. I was moving at about ten paces in a minute. I even stood resting at a traffic signal’s shadow – it was just enough for my two feet. And finally made it back to the temple.
I took a 20 Rs. ticket to take the shorter queue. The time was 12:05 PM and I knew the temple would close by 12:30 PM for the afternoon. So I quickly finished praying both the Shivan and the Shakthi. Walked out fast to my car in the parking thinking I could finally take rest in the car. Only, the car was like a full pre heated oven, the cleaning agent they had used for the insides of my car had evaporated and formed a film of fog on all the glasses. I waited a few minutes with the doors open for it to cool down and made my way back to the hotel. I should have checked out at 12 PM but they didn’t say anything for me being an hour late.
After checking out, I called my mom from the car and updated her that I was going to leave Thiruvannamalai and go to Mel Malayanur now. Mel Malayanur is about an hour from Thiruvannamalai. It’s a small deviation on the way back to Chennai. It has a powerful Angala Parameshwari temple. That’s where I was going. It was a relaxing afternoon drive and I reached the temple at around 2:30 PM. I adore the Goddess here but the people at the temple make you hate to stay there. Everyone from the cleaning woman to the main priest himself, will all ask you for money. I couldn’t walk 5 steps without someone asking me for money. By the time you deal with all these people, even pay the security guys so that you wouldn’t get pushed off without even looking at her properly, it just feels sad and guilty that for everything She does for this universe, everything She tolerates, all I could offer for her, are two handfuls of flowers.
I drove straight back from there to Chennai. I reached home even before the sunset. The whole trip had taken less than 24 hours.
Tips for First Time Girivalam Doers
- If you’re not particular about the pournami timings, the best time to do Girivalam is to start at 5 AM in the morning on any day. Reach the temple by 4.30 AM, pray and start from there at 5 AM. It will be peaceful. You can enjoy the serene beauty of the mountain in the early morning. There won’t be crowds. You’ll finish before 9 AM.
- If you’re particular about the timing, visit http://www.arunachaleswarartemple.tnhrce.in/girivalam.html to know the exact dates and times. Note that it will be very very crowded in these times. I’ve heard of theft risks too in crowded times. Be careful and don’t have valuable stuff on you.
- Start out of the East Tower (Raja Gopuram). The name of each gopuram is written clearly on it. Exit out of the east tower and don’t immediately turn right. You can still merge into the Girivalam Road if you do this, but you will miss the first of the 8 lingams. Keep walking straight after you exit the east gopuram and reach the main road and then turn right. The first of eight – Indra lingam is very close by but you’ve to make sure you reach the main road and then turn right.
- Don’t carry snacks. Because monkeys. There are lots of shops on the way for refreshments. Lots of places where you can get small coconut waters for 20 Rs. Keep lots of loose change for donating to the ashtalingam shrines as well as for getting a couple of coconut waters.
- Walk barefoot but lookout for nasty stuff on the road. Atleast till you get out of the main town and reach the Girivalam road. You can rest at each of the 8 lingams – they’re well spaced. But don’t sit and rest. If your legs go into recuperation mode, it will become harder to walk.
- Don’t worry much about hurting your feet. Just walk carefully without stepping on any large stones. Walk slowly – no rush. If you don’t get a wound you’ll be fine. Take advantage of the footpaths wherever it’s available. Walking 14 km is not as difficult as it sounds. Keep a moderate pace and walk relaxed. You won’t have to be limping around later if you relax and walk in a moderate pace.
- After the seventh lingam (Kubera Lingam), the Girivalam road will merge back into the town’s main road. Be careful here. You might walk into the Polur road which will take you to the Arunachaleswarar temple sooner, skipping the eighth lingam (Eesanya Lingam). Make sure you’re sticking to the Girivalam road till you visit the eighth lingam.
- Read this page – https://richardarunachala.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/the-eight-lingams-on-arunachalas-pradakshina-route/ . It has a neat map marking the eight lingams. Note the first (Indra Lingam) and the last (Eesanya Lingam) especially in that map. Notice the road splitting just before the eighth lingam.
- There’s government arranged parking near the temple. Visit tvmpournami.in to reserve your parking spot on pournami nights. There’s a map on that site for how to reach your parking spot.
- Girivalam road is closed off for vehicles during pournami. Keep this in mind when you book your place of stay. Don’t end up booking a place you can’t reach with your vehicle.
- Although there are several free latrines on the way most of them were locked shut. Better empty your bladder before you start.
- Don’t litter. Don’t spit. Chant ‘Om Namah Shivaaya’ as you walk and glance at the holy hill now and then as you walk around it.